Talking Through My Hat

“Oh, my aching back!”  The red-headed lady was at it again. The young scamp reading a book on the couch across the room looked up, concerned for a moment that his mother was in pain.  As he gazed at her, reading her magazine, it was immediately evident that this was not the case, so he quickly went back to his novel.  But, as he perused the paragraphs, his mind was at work on the phrase he had just heard instead of the words on the page before him.  After a few moments, he ventured the question.  “Mama, does your back really hurt?”  “What?”  the lady looked up from her reading material. For just a moment, she appeared to be at sea.  “What are you talking…..Oh!  No, my back doesn’t hurt.  It’s just an expression; a phrase I use when I’m disgusted about something.”  It would not be the last time the young urchin heard that phrase, along with many others.

The household in which he grew up was actually one which eschewed empty language.  There were no acceptable by-words for the common curse words, as most families used.  Never was the word “heck” substituted for “hell”, nor was “darn” acceptable in conversation, unless one was mending socks.  You get the idea without a recitation of the myriad of words in common use today.  The husband of the red-headed lady called such words “minced oaths” and enforced the rule which prohibited their use stringently.  In this home, words meant things and were to be used accordingly.  Well…with the possible exception of the sayings which the red-headed lady used.  They’ve been discussed before in similar posts, so we’ll not give you a recitation of those either.

The brat who was reading the book, now mature, still remembers the hard lessons of learning to use words correctly.  An encounter, at five years old, between his mouth and a bar of soap is still a vivid picture in his now middle-aged mind, said encounter resulting from the repetition of one of those “minced oaths” after he had been asked to desist.  To this day, he stops and thinks about the meaning of those words, if one happens to slip out in his conversation.  Words have meaning.

But, “Oh, my aching back!” and its kinfolk need a bit of attention.  In part, my mind drifted to this as I began to write tonight because my back actually does ache.  A moving adventure this evening (for which I wish there were photographic proof) with a roll-top desk making the journey from the upper floor of the Lovely Lady’s brother’s house to the ground level below, has left me with a definite pain in the lower back.  You wouldn’t believe the tale of tipping the heavy oak desk over the side of the upper balcony and down to the deck around the pool below, before clambering down via the rail to lower it, so I’ll just save you the incredulity.  I will simply repeat that my back is indeed, aching.   It will recover, no doubt, but the trip back along memory lane had already begun and the road had to be traveled once more.  I hope you don’t mind.

We use similar phrases to describe people or things which annoy us, don’t we?  “He’s a pain in the neck,” is a commonly used description.  We also talk about a pain in the back.  Other parts of the anatomy may or may not occur to you to be used in that sentence, but in the interest of good taste, I’m going to stop with the neck or back.  We simply mean that we are burdened with that persons actions and attitudes.  We don’t really have any physical pain, but we’d rather not be bothered.  Why don’t we just say what we mean?  Why do we have to speak in euphemisms?  I wonder if, like Dr. Seuss’s lovable elephant Horton, it might not be better if we said what we mean and we mean what we say?  Of course, Dr. Seuss may not be the best example here, since he loved to write in analogies. But, you do understand what I’m driving at, don’t you?

Words have meaning.  We often talk just to hear the sound of our voices.  At least, that’s the way it appears, as we babble on and on.  The phrase “talking through his hat” comes to mind.  Although there are a number of ideas for where that phrase comes from, I tend to think it’s just a variant of “talking off the top of his head”; meaning that one speaks in an ill-prepared manner, just saying whatever comes to mind.  In spite of my upbringing, I still make this error frequently and it gets me into trouble, almost as frequently.  Our words should be chosen with care rather than tossed out haphazardly; thought through with deliberation instead of being spoken in haste.  Often, the words we say in a rash and glib manner are remembered by our listeners as serious and literal.  It’s all the more reason to make every one count, to speak each of them in complete sincerity.

You know, I begin to find myself running out of appropriate words as I write this.  To continue would only mean that I would borrow from the habits against which I am warning.  It must be time to find a conclusion to this activity for today.   I’m sure that most of you will concur.

I am speaking plainly when I say that communication is one of the most important tools we possess as human beings.  With our words we build…relationships, families, organizations.  With our words we can (and often do) destroy…the very same things.  It can only be helpful for us to be circumspect in our choices of words and phrases as we communicate with each other. 

I promise that I am not talking through any hat when I tell you that I am headed for home and bed now.  Perhaps this old body will feel better after a few hours of sleep.

Oh, my aching back!

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.  For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
(Matthew 12-36,37~NIV)

“I have been a believer in the magic of language since, at a very age, I discovered that some words got me into trouble and others got me out.”
(Katherine Dunn~American novelist/journalist)

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© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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